Needle pickup

Penticton firefighter Austin Conquergood collects a used needle in this file photo from earlier this year. The Ki-Low-Na Friendship Society has plans for a new program employing homeless people to pick up discarded needles in Kelowna.

More than one million needles have been ordered by Interior Health for free distribution to drug users in the Okanagan in just the past 18 months, according to data obtained by The Penticton Herald.

Placed end to end, those syringes would stretch from Kelowna to Panama. And back.

The data, provided by Interior Health in response to a freedom of information request, shows the agency, between Jan. 1, 2018, and June 30, 2019, ordered 609,700 needles for distribution in Kelowna, 218,975 for Penticton and 209,275 for Vernon.

“It does sound like a lot,” acknowledged Jessica Bridgeman, regional harm reduction co-ordinator for Interior Health, but she urged people to keep a few things in mind.

First, there are an estimated 3,000 intravenous drug users in the Okanagan, which means each of them using one needle per day for an entire year would require just shy of 1.1 million syringes.

(Interior Health orders its needles from the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, which refused to provide a per-unit cost, citing third-party business interests.)

Second, Bridgeman noted the aim of the harm-reduction program is to protect the health of all citizens, not just intravenous drug users.

“For example, if we look at HIV, right now (rates) are very low in our communities as a result of nearly 30 years of distributing needles. If rates were high again, there are multiple ways to contract an illness like that, and although we often think about people who inject drugs in the more visible way – there’s actually a whole other population we don’t see who are injecting drugs,” she explained.

“It may be a family member of ours or somebody we’re in a relationship with and we don’t know about it, and that goes back to the secrecy, the stigma and the hiding of the behaviours. So, while we may not think we’re interacting with people who are engaging in these types of behaviours that are high risk and put them at risk for infections like this, that’s how we end up seeing it move through our other populations.”

Interior Health doesn’t track the actual number of needles distributed, because most needles are passed out on its behalf by social agencies, pharmacies and medical centres, nor does it record the number of used needles that are returned.

“For our communities, that’s been really challenging, because we don’t have any consistent reporting from all of the partners involved,” said Bridgeman.

Needles that are carelessly discarded, despite the growing number of receptacles for them in public spaces like parks and washrooms, are usually collected by local fire departments.

The issue finally came to a head in June, when there was an unconfirmed report of a child stepping on a used needle at Skaha Lake Park.

Penticton city council demanded a meeting with Interior Health to discuss its concerns, but the agency largely brushed them off.

Then, in July, council passed a motion put forward by Katie Robinson that directed staff to explore how other cities are dealing with the problem and what controls on needles are allowed under law. The city has the right to ban smoking on beaches, she argued, so it ought to have a say on syringes, too. “My biggest concern of all is we’re giving these things out with not a good enough plan to get them back. If Interior Health is going to hand out a million needles, does it not make sense they should have a complete plan?”